Nawal El Zaynab Saadawi- a Paragon of Organic Intellect in a Lifetime Spent in Crusading for rights of the vulnerable
There are many women in Africa that dedicated their lives to the work of defending rights of the poor, protecting social freedom of women, upholding rights of children as well as the basic rights of the vulnerable members of our economically polarized Societies. Nawal El Saadawi is one of them. I have chosen to write about her not for anything, but because she is now advanced in age and very delicate in terms of health. By the time of writing this article, Nawal is at the age of 88 years, very sickly and but thank goodness, still very strong in democratic spirit. Speaking against those who believe that purpose of power is to oppress the powerless. And this is what she has been doing throughout her life for the past eight decades. she has been writing in defense of human rights, speaking about human rights, defending those with violated rights and as well as resisting the social and political systems that thrive on oppressing the powerless, both in Egypt her country of birth, and around the world.
The current cultural and literary world readily testifies that Nawal is a non-conformist Muslim, a medical doctor, a fearless writer, de-constructivist, a single mother, un-wavering feminist and an un-apologetic African. She was born in 1931 to an indigenous Egyptian family with ancestry that existed in the ancient Egypt before North Africa became Arabized and Islamized. Nawal El Saadawi is a woman of very many firsts. She is the first woman to be an Egyptian physician, psychiatrist, and the first feminist writer from the world that is substantially Arabic and Islamic. She is the pioneering activist in the Egyptian world of gender rights movement and feminist politics. She is a pioneering psychiatrist that has committed her life to the liberation of women and speaking truth to power through her writings on the subject of women in Islam, paying particular attention to the practice of female genital mutilation. She is the first medical practitioner to bring to public attention the systematic thinking on why the poor people are often sick, and why are they sick in such particular way? I mean Nawal looked at human diseases through the gender lenses of social stratification, but not only through the traditional strait-jacket out-look of microbial infections.
Those in power never regarded Nawal El Saadawi in a good way, instead they initiated snares and ploys that let to Nawal to suffer several stints of imprisonment, detention without trial, irrational censorship, state sponsored ignobling, and other forms of religious as well as politically sponsored brutality for no other reason but because Nawal was an organic intellectual with unique spiritual strength evinced in her writing to promote protection of poor man’s rights, freedom and basic justices . The bourgeoisie and traditionalist scholars have on several occasions equated her to Simone de Beauvoir, the French woman-writer and feminist Marxist. But in the really sense Nawal towers above De Beauvoir in her categorical capacity of revolutionary praxis, intellectual bravado, class consciousness and social cosmopolitanism. She has always remained an intellectual above the trappings of racial bias. It is so unfortunate that Nawal recently underwent an expensive eye surgery, after which she was left a choice-less victim of the post-hospital care bills beyond her means. A social and economic condition hatched to her by decades and decades of politically instigated systematic oppression, betrayal and unfair censorship of her books. However, poverty is never a threat to mental peace of Nawal El Saadawi, this is actively evident in her recent interview with the Newsweek in which she boldly came out that, 'she lives in poverty, in a house that looks like a grave, but she is lucky she has a grave to live in, many in Cairo cannot get such like a grave to put in their heads'.
Imagine, Nawal maintains such a spiritual tempo in spite of the fact that throughout the year, 2019, she has been persistently in hospital. And all of us know that consistent medical detention always render one economical helpless and penniless a situation which calls for empathy and sympathy from the literary community from Africa and around the world as a way of expressing appreciation for Nawal’s eight decades of self-sacrifice and courage in self-immolating kind of struggle to foster human dignity and freedom from brutality of crude culture, oppressive religion, political exclusion , oppression through lack of access to medical care and general ignorance among the poor. A duty which has not been only an act of honour, but also as vintage of unflagging series of acts of intellectual bravura in a class of their own kind that must in-arguably earn a station of being worthy of worthies to be the benchmark worth consultation for us the living during our struggle to shout the truth to power that, 'you who are in power, don’t oppress the powerless.'
Nawal came face to face with systematic oppression of the vulnerable at her youngest age. Reading the biographies and Auto-biographies about Nawal, reveal that she grew up in rural Egypt, in a society that had justified and socialized oppression of women. Egypt of that time had complicated and multifaceted patriarchal culture which was perhaps a moniker of a history inherited from the past social-economic heritage of slavery. For example, when Nawal was before ten years, her grandmother, whom she admired for her independence in thought and mauverick spirit, told her on several occasions that, 'a boy is worth 15 girls at least.” But in her later days, Nawal el-Saadawi has often reflected objectively about this (im)pious instructions from her grandmother by philosophizing in her books and writings that she could not understand how a boy can be worth fifteen girls when she was always on top in her class beating all the boys.
Nawal ventured very early into writing and pen-pushing as a front of struggle, resistance, and deconstruction against the oppressive cultural and political systems, in fact she began writing at the age of seven. This was the time when she wrote her first epistle in her life. It was a letter of complaint to God. In the letter Nawal asked God Why He had failed to be just and fair by not making her mother and father to be equal. This was some times before her second and perhaps most challenging encounter with local systematic oppression of women, when she had decided always to be including her mother's name, Zaynab, next to her own so that she can be called Nawal el Zaynab Saadawi an act which provoked a patriarchal monster in her father to demand that it was his name that she must use, the name Saadawi.
Nawal El Saadawi writes in Arabic and English. She is the author of sixteen spell binding novels, fifteen critical nonfiction books, nine gender focused short story collections, and six memoirs that reflect her life as a freedom fighter, a critic, a freethinker, an organic intellectual of liberal and progressive feminist standing. Nawal also tried her hand to venture into writing drama and plays with a focus on the dramaturgy of the oppressed. From these efforts she was able to earn three successful plays on her name. Throughout her literary life, Nawal has been a victim of serial persecutions by patriarchy in the successive governments in Egypt for her tireless crusades and fearless advocacy for feminism and against religiously perpetrated female genital mutilation, Islamic Talag and ruthless subjection of women to vain fancies and whims of those enjoying power in patriarchy. Above all else, Nawal’s pen and ink have been evidently mauverick in condemning religious fundamentalism and brutality of the hijab dressing code that have been socialized as the Islamic veiling of a girl and a woman.
Those of you my dear readers that love literature can savour yourselves on Nawal’s best known novel Woman at Point Zero (1982). However, there are more conscious themes in her earlier book The Hidden Face of Eve (1977) in which Nawal narrated a nerve chilling and very harrowing account of her own circumcision at the age of 6 as her mother and aunts watched. It is in this book that Nawal also outlined her opposition to the forced marriages of children. In Woman at Point Zero Nawal boldly confirms capacity of a woman to fight for her rights through a main character called Firdausi, who becomes a prostitute in Cairo after fleeing an abusive marriage, then she went further to murder her pimp and refused to atone for her crime, then she is sentenced to death. In this book Saadawi painted a picture of Firdausi, as a real person, as a feminist, and heroine who refuses to be cowed in a struggle to a free person.
Nawal’s writings posed facts-backed challenges to the moral quality of political Islam. This was supposed to soul searching for dialog among those in power, but the Sisyphus syndrome could not allow them to reach such virtues, instead they had Nawal to be arrested and jailed. Nawal’s presence in the cells, occasioned her cellmates to fear that maybe President Anwar Sadat would give them all the death penalty. Saadawi staid, calm and unmoved. She was also very prophetic and optimistic. She remained convinced that she would outlive her Jailer. And truly, in October 1981, a month after she was arrested, President Anwar Sadat, her jailer, was assassinated at a military parade by officers opposed to his system of politics. But, this was not a sign of wholesome peace for Nawal, given that the Egyptian government was not the only institution angered by the liberal ideas in her literary work. The ideas that questioned dignity of a woman in Islam, freedom of thought, and need for equality of all in the Muslim world.
It was this type of intellectual audacity that made Muslim political leaders to put Nawal on the same list as Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasreen. The Name of Nawal El Saadawi was in position 3 on fatwa list or simply death lists that was circulated by Islamist groups in 1991 . To make the matter worse, the death threats were not just a scare-crow, as in 1992, the Egyptian writer Farag Foda was murdered by the Islamic extremist group that carried out hundreds of killings, this was the time around which the Japanese and Italian translators of Rushdie’s Satanic Verses were shot dead in assassination, the Norwegian translator the same book was grievously wounded by an Islamic extremist in assassination attempt. Thank goodness Nawal El Saadawi was safe even though her name was the next on the list. Saadawi had no option but to move out of Egypt and hence, she reluctantly accepted an offer to teach at Duke University in North Carolina. She was assigned to teach literature course unit known as creativity and dissidence. A platform on which she got an opportunity to tell her students that, ‘I cannot undo what education did to you, how it makes people unaware why they are oppressed.'
From her young age, Nawal El-Saadawi often declared that she would never get married. However, in her adult life, she married three times. She met and married Ahmed Helmi in 1955, her first husband while she was training to become a doctor. Medical life influenced much of the themes in Nawal’s writings to advocate for education which she believes enables an “unveiling of the mind.” In one of her recent interviews, Nawal said that we must be educated to help each other. While she was able to help others as a doctor, she realized that she wanted to do more to advocate for equality in order to enable every single person to live a happy life. This social concerns made Nawal run for election to a political office in 2004 but she was barred. An act that made Nawal to point out that she believes much of the problems in society are due to the hypocrisy and deception that occurs in government.
Firmness in resistance to religious and cultural fundamentalism is the center-piece of Nawal's social thoughts. She considers herself a Muslim, although does not base her beliefs on any religious texts. She believes that religious sacred texts such as the Bible and Quran are patriarchal texts used to oppress otherness. Thus, she encourages people to think critically and creatively, and keep their religious beliefs separate from government ideologies. She has often argued that, absence of critical thought is the fountain of FGM that originated from the selfish idea that women were sexual in nature, and their sexuality had to be controlled so they could not tempt men.
Throughout her life, Nawal’s social actions have been guided by believes that humankind is inherently good, but it is society that damages people. And hence, she advocates that men and women have to sort out on how to work together for equality. Any objective out-look under light of Nawal’s teachings will always prioritize liberal education to people about the truth, to learn to make connections, think critically and creatively about world as well as to fix the education system so that the future is not perpetually dominated by the political and social systems enslaved to exclusive thinking. This is why Nawal El Saadawi was also the subject of a 2017 BBC One series feature. She is on record for having spoken the Unspeakable on behalf of those silenced by tyranny of faith, brutality of political power and pinching power of poverty.
My dear reader I want to conclude this story about Nawal by requesting you to allow me to assume that in Africa it is possible for one to finish her first degree in Liberal arts without being taught about organic intellectuals in the likes of Nawal El Saadawi. Thus, I am pushed by such like awareness and inner conscience as well as some duty of care to mention to you some other names that you can read for personal benefit and as well as social benefits given the truth in the modern social fact that correct reading is among the first acts of liberation struggle. Ergo, the names of other educative but very organic feminist intellectuals I want to suggest for you my dear reader are as follows;
Taslima Nasreen-Bangladeshi-Swedish writer, physician, feminist, secular humanist and human rights activist. She is known for her writing on women's oppression and criticism of religion, despite forced exile and multiple fatwas calling for her death. Her books are Lajja, My Bengali Girl-hood, and the French Lover.
Zarina Patel-she is a Kenyan human rights activist, environmental rights activist, the publisher of Awaaz Magazine, a human rights focused magazine, and she is regular writer at the Pambazuka.org. Her human rights and gender focused books are the Un-Quiet, Desai, and Jeevanje.
Judith Orr- she is a feminist and a writer, her book is Abortion Movements
Shailja Patel-She is a human rights crusader and a feminist poet from Kenya, her famous poem is un-woman women published in Awaaz Magazine issue on ‘stopping the violence against women’
Jessica Valenti-she is the author of Purity Myth
Anita Diamand-she is the author of the Red Tent
Naom Wolf- She is the Author of Beauty Myth
Anthony Doerr- he is a feminist writer, the author of Light we Cannot See
Elif Shafak- she is from Turkey, a feminist, a de-constructivist and the author, her Book is Forty Rules of Love, a poet of Rumi.
BUWA JOURNAL AND MAGAZINE-published by the Open Society Initiative of South Africa (OSISA)
*This article is written by; Alexander Opicho, (A poet, essayist, and short story writer from, Lodwar, Kenya,)